Just nine months ago, Luke Wessman felt as if he might never be able to tattoo again.
For that matter, the former Miami Ink and NY Ink tattooer wasn’t sure that he’d ever walk without pain again after he ruptured the lowest disc in his spine. The injury — caused by decades of poor posture and awkward body positions while tattooing — forced him to tattoo only in small doses and to walk with a cane on bad days.
Doctors told Wessman there wasn’t much they could do for him and that if he injured his back anymore, he’d be in such bad shape he could lose control of some bodily functions. Thankfully, Wessman knew someone in the industry who’d suffered a very similar back injury and had a cure for it — even if it’s a surgery that’s not yet approved by the FDA.
“Luckily, my good friend Tim Hendricks [also of Miami Ink and NY Ink, current owner of Classic Tattoo in Fullerton] had a similar issue,” Wessman says. “He was a really great source of information to lead me to this place in Germany where I got a disc replacement last July.”
Following the successful surgery and finally pain-free for the first time in years, Wessman wants to make sure that others don’t have to go through the suffering that nearly cut his career short.
Considering that back problems have always plagued tattooers due to the length of time and the angles at which they have to sit while working, Wessman believes that identifying the problem, maintaining better posture and strengthening one’s core can be solid preventative measures.
“I try to be a resource for friends,” Wessman says “There’s a lot of tattoo guys who are having back problems, so Tim Hendricks and I are trying to help as much as we can and be sources of information. I was just talking to [renowned Hesperia tattooer] Nikko Hurtado about his back issues. It’s something we all know is a problem but a lot of guys don’t want to talk about.”
Wessman missed about eight months of tattooing before and after the surgery but was finally able to return to work late last year. Once he got back to tattooing on a regular basis, Wessman joined the staff at Hollywood’s True Tattoo. At True, the Tennessee-born and San Diego–raised tattooer has the opportunity to work under another of the industry’s legendary names, the toothpick-chewing mustached judge of Ink Master, Oliver Peck.
“True is wonderful because I love to tell my clients how much history it has,” Wessman says. “A ton of really good names have been through there, and now Oliver owns it. I love working for Oliver. He’s a great person to work for as far as respecting the work of the artists, as well as the history of tattooing.”
Aside from carrying on the tradition of excellence at True (where fellow tattoo TV stars like Hendricks, Kat Von D and Chris Garver have all worked in the past), Wessman also runs his private “speakeasy” tattoo studio in Orange County, the Summertown Inn, and is currently in the process of putting together a book based on his popular Instagram page, Lost Art of the Gentleman, where he gives advice on everything from style to dating. But given that he’s been getting tattooed since he was 15, Wessman will always put the art and history of tattooing ahead of everything else. He’ll also never be one to forget where he came from.
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“I started getting tattooed because I was a skinny white kid and I wanted them to look tough,” Wessman says. “I think it worked, because back then it was really all prison stuff and bikers. Now you see a guy who’s all covered in tattoos, and he runs a vegan coffee shop or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different spin on it.”
Of course, part of the reason Wessman developed side projects such as Lost Art of the Gentleman was to be able to stay busy and relevant while he was unable to tattoo due to his back injury. Having already been featured on three television series — Wessman also was a guest judge on Ink Master — he might seem to be running short on other outlets to tap, but that’s not the case. While he’s always looking to grow his personal brand, Wessman is pretty content with just being able to go back to his first love for the time being.
“I did some commercials just recently, and I shot a pilot for a secret TV show,” Wessman says. “I think it’s good to have all these different outlets. One day I’d like to be an adult and be able to pay my bills, but for now I’m just happy to be able to tattoo again and to be staying busy with that. There are a lot of good guys out there who aren’t busy. I’m happy that my back is back.”
True Tattoo, 1614 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 462-4745, @lukewessman.